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Iowa Supreme Court Issues Opinion in Deng v. Farmland Foods

MVP Law Attorneys Kathryn Johnson and Eric Lanham Successfully Defend Rotator Cuff Injuries as Scheduled-Member Shoulder Injuries before the Supreme Court of Iowa

The Supreme Court of Iowa issued opinions in the Deng v. Farmland Foods, Inc., No. 21-0760 (Iowa 2022) and Chavez v. MS Technology LLC, No. 21-0777 (Iowa 2022), on April 1, 2022. The Court noted that the dispositive issue in this case is the definition of “shoulder” under Iowa Code section 85.34(2)(n). Under section 85.34, the classification of a workers’ compensation claimant’s injury as either scheduled or unscheduled determines the extent of the claimant’s entitlement to permanent partial disability benefits. If an injury is classified as a scheduled member injury to the shoulder under Iowa Code section 85.34(2)(n), the claimant is eligible for a percentage of 400 weeks of pay based on the impairment rating of the injury. In contrast, if an injury is classified as an unscheduled whole-body injury under section 85.34(2)(v), the claimant is eligible for payment for the functional impairment resulting from the injury on a 500-week schedule and additional compensation if the claimant did not return to work earning the same or greater wages as before the injury.

Claimants in both Deng and Chavez contended “shoulder,” under section 85.34(2)(n), is narrowly defined to only include injuries located within the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint. Under this definition, damage to the proximal side of the joint would be considered an unscheduled whole-body injury, damage to the distal side of the joint would be considered a scheduled arm injury, and damage within the glenohumeral joint would be considered a scheduled shoulder injury.  MVP Law on behalf of the employer, Farmland Foods, asked the Court to affirm the commissioner and district court rulings. The rulings defined “shoulder” under section 85.34(2)(n) more broadly to include Chavez’s injury by defining “shoulder” as the shoulder structure, including injuries to the tendons, ligaments, muscles, and articular surfaces connected to the glenohumeral joint.

The Iowa Supreme Court held that that “shoulder” under section 85.34(2)(n) must be defined in the functional sense to include the glenohumeral joint as well as all of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that are essential for the shoulder to function.

The Court stated, “Viewing section 85.34(2) in its entirety, it is apparent that the legislature did not intend to limit the definition of “shoulder” solely to the glenohumeral joint. Notably, the legislature refers to the joints of certain body parts in other subsections, including the “shoulder joint,” yet it chose not to include the term “joint” when adding “shoulder” to the list of scheduled injuries.” The Court agreed that if the legislature only wanted to encompass the glenohumeral joint under section 85.34(2)(n), it could have expressly stated so as it did when referring to joints in other subsections. Yet, it chose to list “the loss of a shoulder” as a scheduled injury under section 85.34(2)(n) instead. The Court focused on the defining the scheduled member by analyzing the function of the joint and stated that this functional definition aligns with AMA Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment, Fifth Edition – an argument we ardently asserted by Defense counsel throughout appeal.

With this decision, the shoulder and its attendant muscles and ligaments, including rotator cuff injuries, remain scheduled member injuries in Iowa. Recovery for these injuries under the Act is limited to the value of the functional impairment to the upper extremity out of 400 weeks of benefits for the total loss of a shoulder.

However, it should be noted that in Chavez, the Court was also asked to address whether the claimant was entitled to industrial disability benefits for injuries sustained to a scheduled member shoulder and a scheduled member arm. This was not an issue within the Deng decision. Chavez maintained that should the Court conclude her shoulder injury was a scheduled injury, she should be entitled to industrial disability benefits because she injured two scheduled members: her right shoulder and right arm. Chavez noted that Iowa Code Section 85.34(2)(t) provides:

The loss of both arms, or both hands, or both feet, or both legs, or both eyes, or any two thereof, caused by a single accident, shall equal five hundred weeks and shall be compensated as such; however, if said employee is permanently and totally disabled the employee may be entitled to benefits under subsection 3.

Iowa Code § 85.34(2)(t).

Chavez acknowledged that section (t) does not apply because it does not mention shoulder injuries, and argued instead that an injury to her right arm and right shoulder falls under the catch-all provision in section 85.34(2)(v). The relevant language in this section provides:

In all cases of permanent partial disability other than those described or referred to in paragraphs “a” through “u”, the compensation shall be paid during the number of weeks in relation to five hundred weeks as the reduction in the employee’s earning capacity caused by the disability bears in relation to the earning capacity that the employee possessed when the injury occurred.

Id. § 85.34(2)(v).

Employers and insurance carriers should be aware that this is currently an argument being presented with regularity at the agency level – namely, that if an employee sustains a scheduled member shoulder injury and an arm injury, or two scheduled member shoulder injuries, then they do not fall under any of Iowa Code Section 85.34(2)(a)-(u) enumerated subsections, and their injury is thereby relegated to the catch-all provision of section (v) which entitles them to industrial disability benefits.

While the argument was raised on appeal in Chavez, the Court found that the claimant did not establish a scheduled member arm injury and therefore, declined to address the issue on appeal. However, given the current state of shoulder injuries in Iowa and recent shoulder cases brought before the agency, this is not an issue that will be going away and will likely end up in front of the Court. Employers and insurance carriers should be on the lookout for claimed injuries involving the shoulder and some other scheduled member body part and be prepared for claims of industrial disability under those circumstances. Having injured workers timely evaluated early on in a claim to determine the nature and extent of claimed injuries will be important when defending these types of claims.

However, for today, MVP Law has successfully established that shoulder, and more specifically, rotator cuff injuries, are scheduled-member injuries in the state of Iowa for the purposes of workers’ compensation benefits.  If you have questions about shoulder claims or workers’ compensation benefits in Iowa, please contact Kathryn, Eric, or any one of our experienced Iowa attorneys.